Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Food For Thought

Those of you who know me well know that generally, when I wake up, my most pressing concern is trying to figure out what I am going to eat that day. This started about 5 years ago after I took a look in the mirror and was not happy with what I saw. Actually, my roommate and good buddy Vineet did me a favor and put a not so flattering picture of me on our fridge. It was a Sunday and I was carrying out my then routine, which was dominated by an NFL Sunday Ticket subscription, of starting the day off (at 11:00 am) with a fight against my resultant hangover from the prior night's evils. I poured myself a giant bowl of raisin bran and as I turned to the fridge to hydrate the flakes with some cold milk Sam's Adams Winter Lager (seriously folks, try it, it is amazing on every level), I noticed the photo on an otherwise barren fridge. I wish that I could reproduce that picture here. Sadly, it is long lost (the following is circa December 2002 but I think it serves the intended effect):

I made an instant declaration: that day would be the absolute last day that I would begin with beeraisin bran, followed by watching the 1:00 games, followed by a trip to Publix to grab an overstuffed hoagie, followed by the 4:00 games, followed by a trip to Chipotle/front door to collect some nasty Manny & Olga's pizza/kebab palace, followed by Sunday Night Football, followed by something disgusting, followed by TV.

Yeah, there is no way to just quit anything that delicious cold turkey (especially when there is cold turkey in the Publix hoagies). So, I began my journey to reduce my weight to a respectable level, and to get my fat ass in shape. I started working out on the regs and I gradually began to watch my diet. I even started reading about nutrition (okay, I just read the South Beach Diet) and I realized that if I was serious, I could no longer fill my body with crap. Thus began my problem of trying to figure out what I was going to eat each day. Since then, I have done a pretty good job of keeping myself in respectable condition, especially considering my affinity for the drink and my affinity for burgers - let's face it, they are the real NYC specialty.

There have definitely been a couple periods where I have recessed to old habits though - one troubled winter in NYC and this past summer leap to mind.

Okay - Where the hell am I going with this?

Succumbing to a bout of insomnia the other day, I watched a video essay (I refuse to call it a "documentary" as it definitely had a thesis) on the food supply and distribution network in the United States called "Food, Inc." It basically was watching my brain on film. There are several different themes covered in the essay, but the basic thesis is that the food supply and distribution networks in the US have been overrun by corporate interests and that corporate bottom lines have not been good for any of (i) human waistlines, (ii) human health, (iii) the environment, (iv) animals or (v) everyday farmers. I cannot tell you how much this essay resonated with my admittedly unresearched core beliefs about food.

My first trip to a grocery store in Brazil yielded the following immediate reactions: (i) Amazing! This looks exactly like a grocery store in the US - they have everything (I was even able to buy a towel there!) and (ii) Holy Shit! This crap is expensive. What I was looking at was a jar of salsa. It cost R$23 (US$13,50). I began to look at other staple foods and found them similarly expensive. I started to realize that my relief that the grocery store was better equipped than the franco-relics found in Madrid was quickly being replaced with dismay at the costs. Then I realized - everything I was looking at was processed food. I quickly high-tailed it to the produce section. Halleluja, I found the cheapness the Indian in me was looking for. I grabbed some delicious looking fruits and vegetables and made off for the proteins. OMG! Look at the seafood selection! AMAZING! The Meats were even more so. And everything fresh was so damn cheap! This is exactly the opposite of the United States where processed foods are cheap (because they are heavily subsidized) and fresh foods are expensive.

While Food, Inc. makes a heavy-handed point of criticizing mass Agri-business in the US, it does raise some valid points. Has anyone ever considered if it is actually a good thing to stuff cattle and farm-raised salmon with corn? Has anyone ever considered whether it is a good thing to stuff salmon into mud baths? Can eating chicken that comes from a modern, closed-in chicken house dangerous? What about e-coli? Who is in charge of oversight? And Most Importantly - WHY THE FUCK DO WE NOT CARE ABOUT OUR FOOD SUPPLY?

My guess to the last question is that it is certainly because our food is so plentiful and cheap. And because we have so little information about what is actually in it. One of the themes in the essay is that the Food Business has been so successful in fighting labeling requirements that people are simply incapable of knowing what they put in their bodies. I totally agree. Why withhold information? Oh, because "consumer will be too frightened if we have to put labels on the food." JESUS, frightend of what? You pompous bitch, provide the info and if the consumer doesn't like your product, then go sod off. That is what capitalism is all about right? Consumer Choice? Not out version of Capitalism - our version is all about protecting interests so that we can grow bloated systems that are doomed to fail (see, e.g. the American Auto Industry and the American Banking Industry).

For me, Food, Inc. is important because it highlights another way in which we fail to use democracy for our own benefit. We let tyrants grab the power and then let them control us by lining their pockets with cash while filling our pockets with shit. The answer is not to beg the government (we are the government in America, remember?) to put in place new policies (maybe adjust some current policies or remove certain ones), but to beat the corporations (Monsanto, Tyson, Smithfield & Perdue) at their own game. We need to show our love to farmer's and green markets and demand more transparency in the food production world. Why should there not be free viewing platforms for the public to view slaughterhouses at work (think glass-walled observation decks). Sure, it could make people a little queasy, but our current food supply makes me queasy.

Anyway, since being here and eating almost entirely only fresh foods, I have felt myself become healthier and happier. I am back on track to regain my respectable body weight and despite the fact that I am exercising on the regs again, I really think the food quality is playing a huge role.

So, since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, maybe now is the time to start thinking about what kind of food we spend our dollars on. One thing I know that I am thankful for this year has been the opportunity to spend time in three very different countries and cultures and to be able to compare and contrast them. There is no doubt in my mind that this continues to be the most educational year of my life.

Feliz Dia de Ação Everybody! (Now what the heck am I going to eat for dinner . . .)


Anonymous said...

speaking as an overweight NYer with a near addiction to tube meat, hamburgers, beer and whiskey i cant agree with you anymore. while i dont have a picture of myself on my fridge, i have dealt with not being happy with how i look, what i eat and what i allow in my body. i think that the mere fact that we are asking these questions is an important step. it is essential that we ask questions and challenge, even if just in our minds and body, what the companies are trying to put in our bodies to line their pockets. said...


I know how you feel. It takes real conviction to break habits. But once you do, it gets easier and easier to keep making the choices that you actually want to make. Fortunately, I was raised by a mother who made the commitment to cook healthy meals for her family every night and a father who has long espoused the benefits of eating fruits, vegetables, complex carbs, lean proteins and a low-fat diet.

What never rubbed off on me was how to actually make those choices. Although they tried, I never learned "how to fish" from them. Rather, because they "gave me the fish," I took for granted that I would forever eat healthily. Predictably, as soon as I went to college, I began to balloon.

Put down that burger man! Or at least modify it to make it healthier. Baby steps!

Andy said...

Awesome! Food, Inc. was a revelation for me too. I had already started eating and shopping better, but after that movie I completely eliminated things like Doritos from my diet. And I sold my Monsanto stock at a loss of $150 because I was so disgusted.

One thing I have found that helps immensely is shopping exclusively at a food co-op. People complain that the prices are so high at co-ops, but what they don't consider is that you are not bombarded with bad choices when you enter the store. Everything, even the "treats," are so much better for you. And the higher prices force you to make smarter choices. The result is that you end up spending the same amount of money as at a supermarket, but for less food (a good thing) of a much higher quality (also a good thing), without the temptation to buy snack crap like Doritos (that's three good things!).